News Analysis: Assassination still splits Israelis two years after Rabins death

JERUSALEM — Far from uniting Israelis in grief, the second anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has become a contentious political issue.

Both the left and right have been accusing each other of exploiting the Rabin slaying for cynical partisan purposes.

While the assassination triggered a wave of horror across the country two years ago, the events surrounding the murder and its commemoration have been subsumed into the raging political controversy that splits the nation.

The left, led by Rabin's family, began commemorative observances with a graveside ceremony in Jerusalem on the anniversary of the assassination on the secular calendar.

In addition to a demonstration that night outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, a huge rally at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, the site of the assassination, was scheduled for Saturday night.

Official observances are scheduled for Nov. 12, the twelfth day of Cheshvan, when the yahrzeit is marked on the Hebrew calendar. It is the date the Knesset has designated as a national day of mourning.

But an ugly political row became strident this week, with the Labor Party demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu use next week's Knesset commemorative session to apologize for the part he played in the political incitement that led up to the murder.

At the time of the assassination, there were accusations — foremost from Rabin's widow, Leah — that Netanyahu had not spoken out forcefully enough against the opposition's tactics. These included calling Rabin a traitor for his peace policies, and displaying posters of him dressed in an SS uniform.

Those charges were denied at the time by Netanyahu and other Likud officials — denials that continue to be sounded.

Likud officials this week countered that Labor and its allies were exploiting the national mourning to hurl false accusations against Likud and its allies to make political capital from the assassination.

Netanyahu's wife, Sara, went a step further, telling a radio interviewer that the same sort of unbridled incitement that raged against Rabin in the period before his murder was now being directed against her husband.

Perhaps even more disturbing than all the political wrangling was the release last week of a survey indicating that as many as 300,000 Israelis could justify the assassination of a political leader.

Netanyahu would be the most likely target of an assassination attempt, indicated the Israel Radio-sponsored survey.

It appeared a week after the National Religious Party-affiliated Bar-Ilan University, where assassin Yigal Amir studied, published a survey showing that approximately one in every four Orthodox youths — and one in 25 of secular youth — agreed with the Rabin assassination.

Adding fuel to the flames, the National Religious Party's daily newspaper, Hatzofeh, published an article over the weekend suggesting that Rabin's assassination was in fact a conspiracy involving the Shin Bet domestic security service and Shimon Peres, who succeeded Rabin as premier.

NRP leaders condemned the decision to publish the article, which was based on a book circulating on the Internet. But NRP legislator Shaul Yahalom, the newspaper's chairman, maintained that aspects of the Rabin murder file remain uninvestigated.

The inherent danger in this divisive debate was that the assassination would now be mourned by only half of the nation: the half that supported the peace policies for which Rabin was slain.

The other half, which put Netanyahu in power six months after the assassination, might be put in a position in which it is unable — emotionally or intellectually — to recover its genuine feelings of horror over the murder.

"We, too, voted that the [yahrzeit] become a national day of mourning," Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau said this week. "But in practice it is becoming part of a new wave of incitement."

Landau was among the conservative spokesmen and commentators who defended the Likud's actions in the mass demonstrations that preceded the assassination.

Indeed, he and others pointed out that Rabin — in the heat of the political controversy that raged two years ago over how much, if any, land to give to the Palestinians — had used inflammatory rhetoric.

They recalled how he repeatedly referred to West Bank settlers disparagingly, insisting that his primary responsibility was to the "98 percent of Israelis who live inside the Green Line" — the pre-1967 Israel borders.

Labor loyalists have countered that Netanyahu's recent assertion, which he made unknowingly into an open microphone, that left-wingers "have forgotten what it means to be Jewish" was far more divisive and inciteful.

The controversy took another turn this week, over the question of who will speak at next week's Knesset commemorative session.

Leah Rabin does not want Netanyahu to address the Knesset after President Ezer Weizman and House Speaker Dan Tichon.

The Labor faction, clearly unable to adopt that position, preferred instead to demand an apology from Netanyahu as its condition for agreeing to his speaking for the government.

Within Labor itself, meanwhile, there was tension over whether Peres or party leader Ehud Barak should represent the party.

Tichon agreed that both should speak, along with Education Minister Zevulun Hammer.

This provoked further outrage on the left, where Hammer's NRP and its educational institutions are seen as the ideological hothouses that engendered the atmosphere of religious and political fanaticism within which the assassin's decision to kill evolved.